Canto II’s opening line translates, roughly, to “the day was leaving, the air was brown.” They can’t all be winners; and, in the line’s favor, it’s not quite so off-putting in Italian.
When we left Dante, he had met up with his tour guide, Virgil, who, rather than take Dante directly up the mountain to Paradise, instead knows a back way through Hell that will work just as good. Better, even, what with that killer wolf barring the way up. ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,/non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,/ma tanto lo ‘mpedisce che l’uccide.: “Because the beast that terrifies you” — or “makes you cry out” — “won’t allow anyone to pass her; she harasses them and she destroys them.”
A destination of some kind is inevitable to Dante — whether it be Hell or Paradise. I don’t have that luxury of belief. I am a piss-poor atheist. Intellectually, I find no comfort in most of the concepts of God that are out there; but I do find myself wanting some kind of comfort — a sense that there’s a purpose. If I’m being honest, I might even go so far as to say that often I’m hopeful that there is a God who appreciates my disbelief. “Yeah, I’d find it hard to believe in Me, too,” he would say. “Get in here, ya big lug.” He’d noogie my head. We’d scrapbook on Wednesdays. “Finally,” God would say, “someone who wants to talk about Wilkie Collins as much as I do. I created him, you know…”
Add to the list of piss-poorness rationality, too. I’m not good at it. Or, rather, I’m brilliant at it during the light of day. Under the direct glare of a noon sun, I’m Thomas: let me see these alleged wounds; show me proof of your extraordinary claim. Because no, you didn’t see a ghost. No, evil isn’t a tangible force in the world. When the cats freeze in mid tussle to stare intently at the closet door, as if awaiting the arrival of something I can’t see — that’s… well, it’s pretty freaky. But during the day, it’s easily laughed off.
At night, though.
I can’t turn off that primal part of my brain. I’ve terrorized myself on more than one occasion, sure to the extreme that a demon was hiding in my closet; that the killer had let himself in quietly through the back door; that something evil wasn’t as charmed with my lack of belief as my pretend idea of God is. Two examples:
(1) I saw the movie Signs by M. Night Shyamalan and spent several nights convinced that I was going to be forcibly abducted by aliens. It’s 8:40 a.m. as I write this, and I’m embarrassed to even be putting this into print. Aliens are almost the n’est plus ultra of ridiculousness — in the daytime. For three nights, though, I was unable to sleep, pacing the house, checking the locks, refusing to look up at the sky. (As a teenager, I read Whitley Streiber’s Communion — an unwise decision, since I would spend my nights terrified that aliens would be able to read my thoughts, the thoughts that were trying to convince me that aliens don’t exist, and that they would want to hone in on my unbelief to prove a point. “This is more than just an anal probe,” they would explain. “It’s payback.”)
(2) After the movie Frailty, I was convinced that Bill Paxton and his sons were going to come to my house in the middle of the night, call me out as a demon, and slay me brutally in the kitchen. Again: several nights of no sleep. (After the movie The Exorcist, I would come up with elaborate plans and rationalizations, at night, about how much time I would need to get out of the house from the first moment I heard any weird scratching noises in the attic. “If they had just moved,” I would think, trying to calm myself down, “then a lot of that mishigas could have been avoided.”)
So I’m not an authentic atheist. I’m not an authentic rationalist. This is sort of the perfect mindset to arrive at Canto II.
At the end of the first canto, Dante tells the ghost of Virgil: Poeta, io ti richeggio/per quello Dio che tu non conoscesti,/acciò ch’io fugga questo male e peggio,/che tu mi meni là dov’or dicesti: “Poet, I entreat you, by the God you never knew, so that I may escape this woe — or worse — that you will lead me where you said you would.” Dante has a change of heart, though, at the start of the second canto.
Because the second canto begins at dusk: e l’aere bruno.
Virgil — the actual Virgil — quipped in the Aeneid, Facilis descensus Averni: “Easy is the descent into Hell.” But I think it’s easy, only in the Rube Goldbergian-sense that once in motion, it’s a difficult path to step off of. Or maybe what I dislike about Virgil’s line is how easy the word “easy” sounds. It doesn’t take into consideration any pain or suffering. It’s easy in the way falling over Niagara must be easy once you’re in the water. And I’ve fallen over Niagara again and again it seems, so I know from falling. I don’t, however, know much from easy.
Here’s another thought about Dante’s descent into Hell: he has to. The path he thought would lead to salvation, up the mountain, past the beasts, is barred to him. It looked easy, if a little steep. The path he has to take, however, isn’t easy; doesn’t make any intuitive sense: confronting Hell, walking through it, to reach the Other Side.
(I was going to share an anecdote here, a line from Hugh Prather: “You need to burn the house down with yourself inside it.” It’s a line that has stuck in my head for years, and I’ve always thought it was profound. In fact, that’s all I’ve done with it: I thought it was profound and left it alone. This unexamined assertion has lived, rent-free, in my head. I thought it was apropos here, because Dante has to go through Hell, has to do the counter-intuitive, in order to achieve Paradise. Here’s what Prather tells us: A woman and her husband are having a drink. He gets up to go to the restroom, and another man says to the woman, “Would you like to come with me to Mexico.” And she does. She walks out of the bar, and away from her husband, and away from her 14-year-old daughter, and lives with the man in Guatemala. Prather is telling this story to several other people; the woman of the story is a waitress in a restaurant where Prather and Co. are sitting. “Even uglier than the story was the reaction at our table. We all stared at the woman as if she were a heroine. Any person who can’t feel the distress of a child waiting for a parent to return, or of a life mate abandoned on a whim, is for that moment an edifice without a soul.” And that’s where it seems Prather and Co. are at that moment: they see the woman as a heroine, so, according to Prather’s algebra, they’re all edifices without a soul. He goes on: “A time comes when you need to clean house. No, you need to go even further, you need to burn the house down with yourself inside it. Then you must walk from the fire and say, I have no name.” And…I’m now not sure what point Prather is making. I may still think the idea of burning the house with yourself inside it is a profound one. It has that powerful phoenix archetype, rebirth from the ashes of our own destruction. I don’t, though, know that I agree that the woman did right by everyone in the story. Rebirth itself is an act of selfishness; and selfishness itself isn’t necessarily a negative value. But maybe selfishness is negative when a 14-year-old child is involved. Maybe you don’t get to be selfish then. But what do I know? I hate children.)
Dante has second thoughts, with night unfolding around him, about this plan to enter Hell willingly. “Maybe I’m not ready,” he says. “Look at me.” Guarda la mia virtù s’ell’è possente: “Regard my manhood and see if it’s sufficient.” His hope is that it won’t be, but Dante doesn’t want to be the one to say it of himself. It’s somehow less self-sabotaging if someone else says something awful about us and we believe it, than if we say something awful about ourself and believe it. (Except not always. Except me. Except I have this thing where I want to be the one to discount my intelligence, or my point of view, or my own self. “If I do it first,” my thinking goes, “then there’s no danger of someone thinking that I’m clueless about my own fallibility. I’ve beaten them to the punch. I’ve stolen their thunder. They’ve not gotten the best of me.” Only, of course, they have. I’ve made it easy. I’ve said, “I’m not worthy of your respect. I don’t respect myself.” Respecting yourself, I’m learning, is not announcing your flaws preemptively. That’s too easy.)
Dante goes on to remind Virgil of a list of better men who have gone through Hell: Aeneas (who also has to go through an obscure wood in order to enter Hell) and Paul — as in Paul of Tarsus, the guy responsible for a lot of the New Testament’s misogyny. (In fact, he’s pretty much in some ways more responsible for the shape of Christianity than Christ is.) These men went to Hell for Grand Notions; both bring back good news. There’s something epic in Aeneas’s and Paul’s journeys. And then there’s Dante — frail, weak, changeable Dante. Ma io perché venirvi?…me degno a ciò né io né altri ‘l crede: “But why me?…No one thinks I’m worthy of it.”
When you already hate yourself, and when you’re then given an opportunity to maybe not hate yourself — it’s pretty difficult to stop. Your hate for yourself fits comfortably, like a sweater or stained sweatpants. (Or, even, a sweater and stained sweatpants. “Lookin’ good, Mike. What is that, mustard?”) If I can anthropomorphise Fear for a second, it’s powerfully seductive. It can feel like truth; and, troublingly, sometimes Fear is truthful. But Fear is also good at masking itself when it isn’t truthful. And if your thinking is already compromised by it, it can be tough to shake. The last thing I’ll say about this Fear that I’ve given human qualities to is this: Fear is afraid of being conquered. Fear wants to preserve itself, and that’s why it can be so pervasive. By convincing us that it only has our best interests at heart, it can roost in our soul for a long time.
That’s where Dante is: terrified of what lies before him, unworthy, he thinks, of the task ahead:
Virgil is having none of it. “S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa”,/rispuose del magnanimo quell’ombra;/”l’anima tua è da viltade offesa”: “If I understand you,” replied the shade of Magnanimous, “then your soul is tainted with cowerdice.”
Virgil tells Dante that he (Virgil) lives in Limbo. Virgil didn’t know God, and though noble, isn’t noble enough for Paradise. (This would be one of those places where a belief in God, especially this kind of God, is repugnant to me.) While in Limbo, a saintly lady visited him. This saintly lady is Beatrice. And Dante, the poet, is obsessed with Beatrice.
According to Dante’s poem, La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), he and Beatrice only met twice: once when she was eight and he was nine; again, years later (before she was murdered), in the street. She says hello to him, and he is so overcome with love that he rushes home to fall asleep. His dream of her inspires the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova. It’s achingly romantic; it’s also probably not very true. Both Dante and Beatrice lived in Florence; it’s unlikely they only saw or met each other twice. Also, it’s Dante, who, based on his poetry, is already sort of borderline diagnostic to begin with; it’s unlikely that he’d leave well enough alone and would spend a lot of time peeking at her through her bathroom window. (In a creepy footnote, Beatrice is murdered. It’s her tragic death that sends Dante into paroxysms of creativity. Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi, he wrote of her: “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.”)
In the Inferno, however, Beatrice might be more than just Dante’s beloved Beatrice. She might also be modeled after Saint Beatrix, an early Christian martyr. She buries her brothers, Simplicius and Faustinus, who had been martyred by being beaten, beheaded, and thrown into the Tiber. She then lives with a friend, Lucina, and aids other secret Christians until she’s denounced by a neighbor, Lucretius. Beatrix was martyred by being strangled in prison. Lucretius, the tattle-tale neighbor, receives his just reward in the end: During a dinner party, Lucretius mocked the fate of all martyrs. A child at the dinner said, “Thou hast committed murder and hast taken unjust possession of land. Thou art a slave of the devil”, who at once took possession of Lucretius and tortured him three hours and drew him down into the bottomless pit. The terror of those present was so great, we’re told, that they became Christians.
Virgil explains that there is a sort of phone tree of salvation in Paradise. A Lady in Heaven (no doubt the Virgin) goes to a woman named Lucia (or, maybe, Lucina — see above), and says, “Lucia, have I got a project for you. I’m worried about this Dante fellow.” And Lucia goes to Beatrice (who is sitting with her friend Rachel — of the Seven Year Ache Rachel), and tells Beatrice about this Dante character who is breaking the heart of the Lady in Heaven. Beatrice, then, finds Virgil, and tells him that, in return for his help in getting Dante through Hell, “Quando sarò dinanzi al segnor mio,/di te mi loderò sovente a lui”: “When I am in the presence of my Lord, full often will I praise thee unto him.” Which, unfortunately, will do Virgil a fat lot of good — he still can’t enter Paradise. God will just think nice things about him.
What had started as a personal account of a simple soul’s attempt to right the wrong of his life has now turned into an Epic. Mary, Mother of God, is involved for the love of Pete. It’s a guilt trip that works on Dante, though: not only will he get to Paradise through Hell — but it looks like there’s a chance there’s a lady waiting for him on the other side.
The last line of Canto II is Intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro: “I entered on the deep and savage way.”
Next week: Canto III.